CBMH 32.1_Stivala Mar 25 2015 14:06:40 Page 143Dr. Joan Stivala, Classics and Ancient History, Australian National UniversityCBMH/BCHM / Volume 32:1 2015 / p. 143–160Malaria and Miscarriage in Ancient Rome1JOAN STIVALAAbstract. Many Roman authors have claimed that induced abortions were frequent among aristocratic women in their society. They assumed that abortion was a simple procedure, easy to perform, and generally harmless for the women involved. The truth of these claims is frequently accepted by modern scholars. This article will argue that most supposed “abortions” were miscarriages caused by various infectious diseases, especially malaria.
Keywords.Rome, abortion, malaria, miscarriage
Malaria has had profound demographic effects throughout history. In Mediterranean countries it has in the past led to the abandonment of fertile agricultural lands.2 It has also forced urban populations to desert their homes in a malarial area and re-establish their town in a healthier location.3 There are other, less immediately dramatic, effects on demography in the skewing of age distribution in a population exposed to the ravages of malaria.4 This article discusses one such demographic effect of malaria. It deals with miscarriage in the ancient Roman world. It will attempt to explain why the high rate of abortion claimed by contemporary authors was probably a reality, rather than the product of a fevered imagination.
Given the nature of the evidence currently available much of this discussion is speculative. Sallares notes that interest in malaria in the ancient Classical world declined after the eradication of malaria from Italy after the Second World War.5 This interest, however, did not disappear. Brunt devotes 14 pages to malaria in his Italian Manpower 225 B.C–A.D. Scheidel offers a demographic perspective, and Shaw challenges the importance of malaria as a significant cause of death in Italy.
Sallares’ work revived my interest in malaria and its effect on the population of the Roman Empire. There has been no discussion that I have been able to find on the possible effects of malarial infection on the population sub-set that is the focus of this article—pregnant women.
When censorious senatorial writers condemned the large number of abortions among women of high status they were reporting a real phenomenon rather than reacting with moral panic to an imaginary problem. Their error lay in assuming that these abortions were induced. I argue that in fact most were spontaneous abortions, often caused by various diseases.
One such disease was and is malaria, the subject of this article. The effects of malaria in pregnancy were first recognised only in the 1920s and 1930s. Enough contemporary witnesses as well as later commentators tell us that induced abortions were commonplace among aristocratic Roman women. There is not much childbirth in wealthy beds, according to Juvenal, because of the skills and the drugs of the abortionist: sed iacet aurato uix ulla puerpera lecto.tantum artes huius, tantum medicamina possunt,quae steriles facit atque homines in uentre necandos conducit.—Juvenal, Satires